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Senators optimistic on immigration after White House meeting
McClatchy Newspapers

April 27, 2006

WASHINGTON - A bipartisan group of senators emerged from a meeting with President Bush on Tuesday more optimistic than before about the prospects for creating a national guest-worker program and a permanent residency application process for some of the nation's roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants.

"After this meeting, I'm convinced we'll pass immigration reform this year," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said following an hour-long meeting at the White House with the president and more than a dozen senators involved in the debate. Specter predicted Senate passage of an immigration bill by Memorial Day and a final bill, adopted by both chambers of Congress, by the end of the year.




Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Minority Leader Harry Reid said they still need to work out the rules for Senate debate with their respective caucuses, after a guest-worker bill supported by the Judiciary Committee reached the Senate floor earlier this month only to be stalled by a procedural move. Frist, while wary of any program that amounts to an amnesty, said a full vote would come "in the very near future," and Reid said, "I think we made great progress today."

The president has long favored a system through which temporary guest workers could come to the United States to provide cheap labor for business.

In Tuesday's closed-door meeting, Bush did not specifically endorse the stalled Senate legislation, which would allow longtime undocumented residents without criminal records to pursue citizenship if they pay fines, have jobs and clear other hurdles.

But some senators said he went further on Tuesday than he has in the past in terms of supporting a comprehensive approach that could lead to some longtime undocumented workers already in the United States pursuing permanent residency or citizenship. Senators said the president also indicated he will seek to personally sway House Republicans, many of whom are resistant to any program they believe would reward illegal immigrants.

"The president kept coming back time after time to the word 'comprehensive,' " said Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo. "He said he would be working with the House membership."

In a public statement after his meeting, Bush described "a common desire" for legislation "that will hold people to account for hiring somebody who is here illegally - but a bill that also recognizes we must have a temporary worker program, a bill that does not grant automatic amnesty to people, but a bill that says, somebody who is working here on a legal basis has the right to get in line to become a citizen."

Bush has been delivering speeches on immigration, as he did in California on Monday, where he said it was not a realistic goal to deport millions of people. But he had steered clear of trying to broker a deal in Congress, tempered by his low public approval ratings and his high-profile failure last year to get Congress to act on his call to create private investment accounts in the Social Security retirement program.

Specter and some other lawmakers had urged him to get more involved, saying Senate Democrats were reluctant to vote on legislation they thought didn't stand a chance in the House.

The House last year passed an immigration bill with no guest-worker program but with language making undocumented status punishable as a felony. That prompted street protests in several major U.S. cities this spring, as the Senate prepared to begin its own debate, by hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers and legal residents who support them. Americans are now telling pollsters they consider illegal immigration a top national concern but are divided on how best to respond.

A vote by the full Senate on a guest-worker program was stalled earlier this month, and lawmakers left town for a two-week recess. The debate is expected to resume next month. Some Senate Republicans, including Frist, are concerned that legislation Specter's committee brought to the Senate floor comes too close to providing amnesty for longtime undocumented residents.

As a policy issue, immigration appears to divide the Republican Party more than it does Democrats. Many business owners say they need cheap and sometimes temporary labor that low-skilled immigrants are willing to provide. Many social conservatives say illegal immigration is overburdening government services, hurting low-skilled American workers and threatening national security.

Democrats generally are more in favor of allowing law-abiding undocumented immigrants to seek legal residency. Some Democrats oppose a guest-worker program that would give laborers less rights than American workers and no mechanism for applying for residency. Other Democrats are reluctant to support any legislation, fearing House Republicans at the last minute would persuade Senate Republicans to strip away language legalizing undocumented workers.

A hearing Tuesday in Specter's committee underscored the complexities of the debate. Asked what the parameters of a guest-worker program should be, the four academics testifying, all specialists in the economics of immigration, could not even agree on whether a guest-worker program was a sensible approach.

"The best guest-worker program is no guest-worker program," said Barry R. Chiswick, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "How does one get them to leave the country?"

Harvard professor Richard B. Freeman disagreed. A legal guest-worker program, he said, would be better than "an illegal guest-worker program, which is what we're running today."


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